Primetime Players

Turner sports shocked the sports TV world this past August when it secured exclusive, multiplatform U.S. rights to UEFA European soccer games starting in 2018 and running through 2020.

Turner further set industry heads spinning by announcing it would put a majority of its 340 yearly UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League matches on a new over-the-top subscription sports service to launch next year. That service will offer other yet to be defined sports content to draw in hard-core, cord-cutting sports fans.

Turner’s bold move, led by president David Levy and Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels, capped a year in which the programmer solidified its sports prowess in traditional linear cable with strong ratings performances across multiple networks — from TNT’s exclusive regular-season and postseason NBA coverage, to TBS’ MLB postsea son telecasts to Turner’s multi-network coverage of “March Madness,” aka the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, with partner CBS — while putting a stake in the digital future with its 2018 OTT service and its push into the e-sports arena. Making these moves earned Levy and Daniels recognition as two of B&C’s Sports Executives of the Year.

“We really just want to secure, build and maintain the current ecosystem we have and were able to do that and keep the quality as high as it can be,” Daniels said. “The UEFA deal and the new OTT product allows us to start doing things in the new ecosystem, and we really like where we are in that space.”

A Thriving Ecosystem

Turner’s nurturing of the “current ecosystem” paid off in 2017 as it enjoyed one of its strongest ratings years across the board.

TBS hit a ratings home run during its coverage of the recently completed Major League Baseball postseason, averaging 6.2 million viewers for its coverage of the Chicago Cubs-Los Angeles Dodgers National League Championship Series, up a whopping 88% versus its 2016 LCS coverage.

Overall, the network’s 14-game 2017 live, postseason baseball coverage drew 6.2 million viewers, up 44% from 2016, according to Nielsen.

Not to be outdone, TNT’s Oct. 17 NBA opening night coverage of the Boston Celtics-Cleveland Cavaliers game drew 5.6 million viewers to make it the second most-watched opening game performance in TNT’s 29-year history of televising NBA games, and a 95% improvement over last year’s league opening tipoff game.

The opening night numbers built on the momentum generated from TNT’s Eastern Conference Finals coverage last spring, in which Turner posted a 12% year-over-year ratings gain from the 2016 playoffs.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver attributes the league’s success with Turner to the leadership of Daniels as well as Levy, whom Silver said he’s known for two decades and called one of the most accomplished and influential executives in sports media.

“Lenny Daniels shares David’s passion for developing and distributing premium programming, which makes Turner’s sports properties among the very best places to consume content, especially live sports,” Silver said. “David and Lenny are terrific partners of the NBA and continue to play a critical role in the growth of our game.” Daniels, a veteran Turner executive who took over the Turner Sports presidency in July 2014 after having served as chief operating officer of the division since 2009, said that Turner’s relationship with the NBA has only blossomed over the years.

TNT’s successful Monday-night “Players Only” package of games added last year — in which ex-NBA players handle all play-by-play and analyst duties — will return in 2018 to complement the network’s exclusive Thursday-night lineup of NBA games and the network’s popular Inside the NBA pregame and postgame series.

“I think we work together so well that people don’t really differentiate the two entities, which I think is what makes it work,” Daniels said, referring to Turner and the NBA.

Levy, who has had oversight of the business operations of Turner’s domestic entertainment network properties since 2013, added that the network’s association with the NBA goes beyond its linear channels. Turner Sports also manages the league’s network, NBA TV, and its NBA League Pass out-of-market package of live games that stream on mobile phones, laptops and tablets.

Turner this season added a package of virtual reality games that extends the NBA experience into emerging technologies.

Turner has also proven it can also play well with other media companies as witnessed by its six-year partnership with CBS on the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, affectionately known by most sports fans as “March Madness.”

The past spring, the two companies produced the second-most watched tournament in 23 years, with ratings for the three-week tournament generating a 16% increase over the year prior, according to Nielsen.

In addition, Turner and CBS’s March Madness Live digital interactive streaming suite of products, which includes live radio coverage of all 67 games of the tournament and other up-to-the minute game coverage, generated a record 98 million live video streams.

“I think it has worked better than any of us could have predicted, with respect to growing the ratings, growing revenue, creating innovative production and very effective branding,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “Together, I think we’ve grown the event tremendously, and I give a lot of the credit to the way David and Lenny have worked so seamlessly with CBS.”

Daniels said the relationship between CBS and TBS to distribute the tournament, which runs through 2032, has been mutually beneficial, as both companies work toward the same goal of delivering the games to the widest audience across multiple platforms.

“Trying to put companies together like that is really not easy, but in this case we just we have this mantra of fan first and we stick by it,” Daniels said. “We actually all get along, and we've all worked in step towards the same goal.”

While Turner Sports hasn’t amassed the huge portfolio of sports rights that national sports services like ESPN and Fox Sports have, it has made the most of what Levy calls “premium” sports properties to flank the entertainment-heavy programming lineups of its linear cable channels TNT, TBS and truTV.

“We spread our sports properties out to our portfolio and I think it helps bring in new fans and new consumers into these brands,” Levy said. “All these sports properties help with our distribution conversations with our cable operators, our fans, our viewers and our advertisers.”

Turner’s laser-fine approach to securing its sports content has kept the company offering year-round, marquee TV sports content without running up high sports-rights costs.

“If you take a look at our portfolio, the majority of our baseball coverage is in the postseason; we don’t carry any regular season college basketball — it’s all about the NCAA tournament,” Levy said. “If you look at the NBA, we have that exclusive Thursday-night telecast which has been a foundation for us, and then of course the majority of our impressions and revenues come in the postseason. We have one golf event, which is a major [the PGA Championship]. So if you’re focused on the premium content — which UEFA falls into because it's the Champions League — that’s how you stay disciplined.”

As Turner enjoyed success in linear cable in 2017, it also looked to position itself as a major player in the future of live sports TV distribution. Its UEFA acquisition set the wheels in motion for Turner to play on the OTT field with a yet-to-be named service debuting in 2018 that will offer UEFA Champions and Europa league games as well as other live sports product.

“The real focus of the UEFA acquisition was twofold: We knew we wanted to be in the OTT business and this was a foundational piece for that property,” Levy said. “We knew [Turner-owned digital sports information service] Bleacher Report was resonating with the soccer/football fan, and that young audience was going to it to absorb that kind of content. And then, of course, you know it wasn’t bad to have the UEFA semifinals and finals carried on one of our key entertainment brands.”

“So we looked at it from a holistic point of view which is OTT, digital and traditional television,” he added. “The property was bought specifically for that nature.”

Investing in ESports’ Future

Just as the UEFA deal will help provide Turner create a foothold in the developing OTT space, its 18-month ELeague franchise has put the Turner brand squarely in the middle of the emerging esports arena.

The ELeague series, which launched in May 2016 with a weekly Friday night series on TBS, has generated almost 4 billion minutes of consumption across all platforms for Turner, according to Levy. In addition, more than 45 million total viewers so far have viewed TBS’s weekly coverage since its launch — 10 million of those viewers were new to the network, according to Turner.

“Getting out of the gate and getting us credibility with the gamers themselves was the most important thing for us with the ELeague,” Levy said. “We wanted to establish credibility and authenticity with the players … once we established that foothold we knew we would be able to generate those results.”

Added Daniels: “You can’t deny there’s an enormous audience of young men across the world for e-sports programming. The problem is can you create a business model for it, and that’s what a lot of people are trying to figure out.”

It’s a good bet Turner will find a way to score with ELeague financially while reaching its target viewers wherever they want to watch the action. “We don't go into these businesses to lose money, and all of these [sports] deals that we have done over the life of the deal will be profitable,” Levy said.

As for other adding other sports properties to Turner’s burgeoning portfolio, Levy said the company is open to acquiring sports rights that build on its overall sports ecosystem.

“We will look at anything that's a premium sports property,” he said. “It has to fit the criteria of working for our distributors, our advertisers and our viewers while being financially appropriate.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.